My Church

IMG_0122.PNGOur church closed last summer.  It was no surprise. We knew it was coming – there just wasn’t enough of us.

We could hear that in every hymn we sang on Sunday.

Scattered sparsely among the pews, our voices mumbled into song as softly as possible, least we be heard above the rest, and stumbled reluctantly through the verses until we reached a collective sigh at the end.

Our singing may have been well received in heaven but here on earth, it did little more than remind us that we lacked the critical mass for song.

So now Saint Mary’s rests in quiet retirement in a grove of sheltering pines that protect her from the howling winds of Southern Minnesota.

It is a story I am all too familiar with – because years ago, I worked at the headquarters of the American Lutheran Church (ALC), a union of fading Midwestern congregations that itself vanished into The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA).

My boss there, was a one of a kind character. A man who functioned as a sort of ecclesiastic fixer. He was the guy they sent in when congregations forgot they were Christian.

One of his favorite stories involved a church on the wind swept prairie of eastern Montana.

In those days, the big divide was not race, nor religion – but the ethnic conflicts between people who looked exactly the same and believed the same things.

In this case, it was the children of Norwegian and German immigrants who were divided by their common religion.

The Germans liked to drink beer and argue. The Norwegians neither drank beer, nor argued, instead their favorite pastime was seething in aggressive silence at their foolish German brethren.

All would have been well had not the boisterous Germans with their foolish ideas, convinced the congregation to build a Lutheran school and floated bonds to pay for it.

The school was built too big, too fancy and too far away from town to attract paying students. Over the course of a few years, it limped painfully into bankruptcy and everyone who supported the school by purchasing bonds, lost their money.

In the ensuing recriminations, knuckles were broke, heads were busted and shots were fired. After their pastor fled to the safety of North Dakota, the church in Minneapolis dispatched my boss.

The first thing he did was sit down with each member of the congregation and the conversations went something like this:

OLD NORWEGIAN: It’s them Chermans, them dirty Chermans.

MY BOSS: So what’s wrong with them?

OLD NORWEGIAN: [aghast that a clergyman would ask] They drink beer!

MY BOSS: True – but a lot of Norwegians drink beer too.

OLD NORWEGIAN: YAH but they KNOW it’s wrong!

When he talked to the Germans, the conversation went like this:

OLD GERMAN: Have you ever tasted what they pass for coffee?

MY BOSS: [a bit confused as to why this was brought up] No.

OLD GERMAN: Have you ever talked to them?

MY BOSS: Yes.

OLD GERMAN: [Just stares]

MY BOSS: [respectful silence]

OLD GERMAN: [continues to stare]

MY BOSS: [waiting patiently]

OLD GERMAN: [stares harder]

MY BOSS: Aren’t you going to say anything?

OLD GERMAN: See how hard it is to talk to them?

After days of weak coffee and strong beer, my boss managed to soothe enough egos to unite the congregation for a shared Sunday service.

In his sermon, he spoke of forgiveness and reconciliation.

He reminded them they were all children of God and thus brothers and sisters in Christ and that their family must find a way heal.

As he spoke, he kept a sharp eye on the congregation. On the north side of the sanctuary, the Norwegians seethed silently as their German brethren glared back at them from the south.

After the sermon, as the collection plates floated among the pews, everything changed. The contributions flowed. In fact, the envelops piled up so fast that the ushers made several trips to empty the plates.

That meant something.

After the service, as my boss removed his robes and made plans to return to the Twin Cities, the ushers shuffled in to talk to him.

“How did we do?” he asked.

“Not so good,” one said.

“How so?” my boss asked.

“There was lots of envelops,” the lead usher said, “but all they contained was the worthless school bonds. I guess that is all we are going to get until they are gone.”

Little remains of that church today and nothing remains of the school to interrupt the winds of Eastern Montana but if you visit the region, you can still find a few old Norwegians seething in silence and a few old Germans arguing about days gone by…. and while the old Germans and old Norwegians never reconciled, their grandchildren did… and isn’t that the way it always goes?

Author: Almost Iowa

www.almostiowa.com

41 thoughts on “My Church”

  1. Cultural divides are often difficult to overcome, particularly in the context of shared spiritual beliefs.

    I hate hearing about churches closing their doors, and was particularly sorry to hear about this one. I would have loved to have been sitting in a back pew, watching the colorful cast of congregants (bonus points for alliteration) shining their personalities back at a pastor doing his best to reach each and every one of them.

  2. This is such a good post, on so many levels. It struck me even more because I just came home from a church service where the pastor preached a very political sermon with a very clear message of which side of the immigration issue both God, and anyone with an ounce of common sense and compassion, would be on. I have a feeling that she just drew a line down the middle of the congregation, neatly and permanently dividing two opposing groups who will behave just like the Germans and Norwegians in your story.
    We humans are such odd creatures: capable of great empathy and understanding on the one hand, but always needing “an enemy” to oppose on the other hand.

    1. I always get myself into trouble because I have a weird way of looking at the world. At least in my view, the greatest problem with immigration – be it in Europe, Asia or the Americas is demographics. It is not where people come from or even their culture, it is who is coming. Immigration skews strongly toward the young and the male – and I don’t care whether it is a college town, a military base or a construction boom, whenever you bring a critical mass of young men in their twenties together, you have serious problems.

      A good friend of ours is a line supervisor for a baking company and she was having a horrible time with young male immigrants grabbing and being crude with the women who worked in her department. She warned them, she chewed them out, she fired a couple but it made no difference.

      I mentioned this problem in casual conversation to my Lieutenant, who instantly came up with the solution. What she said was needed was mothers and grandmothers. So that is what happened, our friend asked that a number of older (immigrant) women be moved to her department. End of problem.

      The boys would act like boys only because in their view, they were not at home. When “mom” was around to disapprove, they behaved themselves.

      As for the political fervor over refugees, let’s not forget that there are 60 million refugees in the world today. All sides need to cool it about the thousands or even the million – and focus on the full extent of the problem.

      1. I think what I enjoy most about your posts is your “odd” way looking at the world, because it so often makes sense to me. And on this immigration issue, I couldn’t agree more!

  3. One tiny phrase (we sung the hymns quietly least we be heard) is the problem with most of us as Christians….wishy-washy, afraid to sing loudly in tribute to the God whom would make love to us in lightening strikes and sunsets….I, too, am thankful for our grandchildren’s more Godly view of the real importances. They remain my hope!

    1. And no one was more stubborn than an old German. My grandfather drove with his left tire on the center line. He thought that was the way it should be done and that was that. One day he met another old German who had the same driving habit and was equally as stubborn as he was. Neither would yield. So at the very last instant, they both swerved…but this was back in the 20’s when cars had bumpers that stuck way out. They hooked rear bumpers and the other guy went sailing into a lumberyard. My grandfather’s car went through the wall of a factory….. The newer bricks in the approximate shape of a car are in still in the wall as a testament to his stubbornness.

      1. I worked for a large German Pharma and chemical company. I can certainly vouch for the left wheel on the line thinking. I will say though the spectator events were spectacular. Thanks, Greg,

  4. My first thought is that, I guess the difference between Lutherans and Methodists is that the latter don’t care if you hear them sing badly. My mom’s church rocks the walls with every hymn. My second thought is the hope that we come to our senses faster than the folks in this story. Well done.

  5. I take some comfort from this… not only as a Lutheran (with German roots, no less! Can’t you smell the sauerkraut?) but as one who is losing sleep over current events. As Mick posted above, I just hope it doesn’t take two generations to settle down.

    1. For sixteen years, I worked on the East Side of Saint Paul in a neighborhood dominated by immigrants, mostly from Laos. One day at Walgreen’s, I stood in line behind a woman, dressed in traditional Hmong clothing, a long black skirt, embroidered blouse and sensible shoes. She couldn’t speak a word of English and her daughter had to translate for her – all the while pecking at her telephone.

      The daughter’s accent was pitch-perfect Midwestern, right down to the teenage angst. So you have to ask yourself, where did she pick up her language skills? They don’t teach angst in English as a second language class.

      She picked it up from her peers.. The same place she probably picked up her fashion-taste and social values.

      This is a natural melting-pot process and as long as it is allowed to happen, we will all be alright. The problem occurs when some immigrant groups refuse to let their children adapt or when urban and rural kids spin off into different social paths (as we can see by this election). That spells trouble in the long run.

      I tend to be a pessimist about these things, diversity works best when we look different but think the same. When we think differently, that’s when intolerance raises its head.

      1. Yes! In the South St. Louis neighborhood where I’m from, it was very common to actually scrub the front porch steps! And the neighbor who lived behind us was known for trimming stray blades of grass with actual scissors after he was done mowing his lawn. It wasn’t a rich neighborhood, but it was most definitely a neat and clean one.

  6. ” and while the old Germans and old Norwegians never reconciled, their grandchildren did… and isn’t that the way it always goes?”

    In our current political climate? Hope so, or maybe we won’t wait so long… 😉

  7. Having spent some years herding a German-Czech congregation in rural Texas — well, let’s just say I appreciated this. I do believe the handbook for ecclesiastical bureaucrats contains this entry, however: “In case of apparently irreconcilable differences among congregational members, send in the pastor who most differs from them — the one who prefers arugula to kolaches or spätzle. They will unite against the outside threat in a flash, and all will be well.”

  8. I was touched by the dogged pathos of two sides too stubborn to see their own faults well enough to save themselves. And, since I’m not religious, it’s rare I even read the topic. By the end, I was still rooting for a different ending.

    1. Actually……. he came close. He knew LBJ from his youth in Fredericksburg TX.

      After serving in West Texas, Pastor T always had a deep affinity its people. Whenever a retired pastor or a widow of a pastor from West Texas had an issue, Pastor T would handle it personally. “You just don’t know how lonely it is out there,” he would say.

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